Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On the Catholic Roots of Ken Cuccinelli's Anti-Gay Politics: Dishonest Use of Gay Acts-Gay Persons Distinction

Several days ago, the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, was asked if he thinks that gays are a detriment to our culture.  This question came on the heels of a ruling by Cuccinelli instructing the commonwealth’s universities to rescind policies prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Cuccinelli’s response to the question about whether gays are a detriment to our culture is interesting.  It illustrates a point I’ve made both here and at the Open Tabernacle blog: namely, that right-leaning Catholics want to use the distinction between disordered gay acts and disordered gay persons to continue discrimination, even as they claim that it’s the gay acts and not gay people they’re combating.

In response to the question—Do you think that gays that practice homosexuality is a detriment to our culture?—Cuccinelli fumbles for words, and then replies,

Uh, the, the acts are. I mean, you certainly want everybody in your society to be integrated into the society.

And what many of those hearing Cuccinelli’s response may miss is that it is an accurate replication of Catholic teaching about gays, as it currently stands.  That teaching focuses on gay acts, the strange word that Cuccinelli immediately reaches for here.

We view the humanity of a whole set of people through the lens of their “acts”—on the basis of what we imagine those “acts” to be.  On the basis of what we assume goes on in their bedrooms.

Asked if we accept a group of people and want to integrate them into our society or if they are a detriment to our society, we go right to the bedroom: the acts are a detriment to our society.

Those “acts” are happening in the privacy of the bedrooms of gay couples, but we want to keep them front and center as we assess whether gay people can or should be accepted in society.  Something we don’t do with heterosexual couples, no matter how far from the norm their bedroom “acts” might be.

We just don’t think it’s right to make value judgments about straight people—or about other groups of people, groups other than the gays—by heading to the bedroom and talking about “acts.”   That’s a . . . strange . . . way of looking at any group of people, we conclude, an undignified and unjust way of determining whether people count, we think.

Unless it’s the gays we’re talking about.

But when it’s the gays, the “acts”—the bedroom—are front and center, and they’re front and center in Catholic magisterial teaching. 

And here’s the puzzling thing about Cuccinelli’s use of the term “acts” in response to a question about whether gays are a detriment to our society: he actually thinks that distinguishing gay “acts” from gay people absolves him of the prejudice that oozes out of every word he speaks.

Having proposed that helpful distinction—people who do gay “acts” are a detriment to our society, but the humanity of gay people somehow stands apart from the “acts” that gay people do (in a way that the humanity of other people never stands apart from their acts)—Cuccinelli goes on to propose that he wants gays to be integrated into society!

He wants his prejudice and he wants to eat it, too, in other words.  He wants to keep that sharp laser focus on gay “acts”—on gay bedrooms and our lurid imaginings about what goes on in those bedrooms—front and center, while assuring us that he’s all about integrating gays into society.

And while writing letters to universities in his commonwealth instructing them to reinstitute policies of discrimination that they have thrown away precisely because those policies militate against the integration of gay and lesbian people into society.

At one level, Cuccinelli ought not to be blamed for the dishonest semantical game he’s playing here.  The church to which he belongs is ultimately to be blamed for crafting semantic distinctions that promote discrimination while permitting the church to claim that it stands against discrimination.   Cuccinelli was merely replicating Catholic teaching faithfully when he informed the media during his campaign for office that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, are intrinsically wrong, and we need policies to reflect this distinction in a “natural-law based country.”

Acts, not people.  Acts that we use to define a whole group of people, even as we claim that those acts somehow stand apart from the group of people we’re defining by means of the acts we imagine they do.

Catholics who hold onto these dishonest distinctions want to have their cake and eat it, too, when it comes to questions of prejudice.  In the case of Cuccinelli, we see precisely where the current right-wing defense of official Catholic teaching, with its attempt to distinguish disordered acts from disordered persons, leads: it leads right to discriminatory treatment—legal orders to remove protections against discrimination—even as those engaging in the discrimination claim that they want to integrate the targeted group into society.